Among the foremost of Victorian statesmen stands William Ewalt Gladstone.
The name of Gladstone has often occurred in this story of the great Victorian era; but it will be well to collect together a few of the events of his life, in order that the Liberal statesman may stand out beside his political opponent Disraeli, whom he outlived by eighteen years.
The son of one of England's merchant princes, who had made his fortune in West Indian sugar in the days before the abolition of the slave-trade, he went to Eton and Oxford and passed out into the great world of politics. At the Queen's accession he was a young man of twenty-eight, who had already held the post of Tinder Secretary to the Colonies in Sir Robert Peel's Tory ministry.
"Mark that young man," said an English minister; "he will be Prime Minister of England"; while the Bishop of Oxford prophesied success when he wrote, "There is no height to which you may not fairly rise in this country. You may at a future date wield the whole government of this land."
He became a member, under Sir Robert Peel, of the Queen's first Tory Cabinet in 1841, a young man "of unblemished character and of distinguished parliamentary talents, the rising hope of these stern and unbending Tories".
It is curious to remember that Gladstone began his political life as a Conservative and Disraeli as a Liberal, and that both men changed their views and became shining lights on the other side. When the question of Free Trade arose, Gladstone convinced himself that it was a move in the right direction, while Disraeli argued for the continuance of Protection. The promoters of Free Trade won, and it fell to Mr. Gladstone to reduce the customs duties of Britain.
In 1852 the Budget of Disraeli was fiercely attacked by Gladstone, who, by his great speech on this occasion, brought about the fall of the Government. Succeeding his rival as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he at once abolished the soap tax, reduced the heavy tax on tea, and by means of other economic measures he came to be regarded as one of the leading financiers of Queen Victoria's reign.
The harassing days of the Crimea over, he again became Chancellor of the Exchequer, planning the abolition of the tax on paper, which paved the way for cheap books and newspapers. It fell to his lot to introduce a Reform Bill in 1866, and on this subject he delivered one of his most famous speeches.
"You cannot fight against the future," he pleaded in a voice of solemn warning, which thrilled through the House. "Time is on our side."
The Reform Bill was defeated, and Gladstone retired to his home at Hawarden for a time. But rest was not for him.
A new and yet more democratic Reform Bill was passed by the new parliament, when Disraeli became Prime Minister; but in 1868 Gladstone was called by the Queen to form a Cabinet.
"My mission is to pacify Ireland," he said as he accepted office, and to this end he set himself with his whole soul. His task was colossal.
He proposed first to disestablish the Irish Church as a State Church, and we have already seen how he succeeded. He passed the Elementary Education Act, by which for the first time all children were compelled to go to school.
In 1885 he brought in a Bill for Home Rule for Ireland, which was defeated. At the age of 81 he once more came forward as Ireland's champion and urged Britain to pass a measure bestowing Home Rule on Ireland.
"Sirs," he ended a great two-hour speech, in a voice struggling with emotion, "it would be a misery to me if I had omitted in these closing wars any measures possible for me to take towards upholding and promoting what I believe to be the cause . . . of all parties and all nations inhabiting these islands. Let me entreat you," he added in a low voice—"if it were with my latest breath I would entreat you—to let the dead bury its dead. Cast behind you every recollection of bygone evils; cherish, love, and sustain one another through all the vicissitudes of human affairs in the times that are to come."
The Bill passed its third reading by a scant majority, to be thrown out by the Lords.
So William Gladstone passed from the scene of his long political life.
He had been three times Chancellor of the Exchequer and four times Prime Minister; he had reduced the number of goods on which customs duties were paid from five hundred to fifty, and amongst other measures, he had been responsible for the Irish Land Act, the abolition of the soap and paper duties, and the Local Government Act.
William Ewart Gladstone.
As an orator he had no equal in the great Victorian age. He wrote on matters political, theological, and literary, and in his pursuit of knowledge he found relief from anxiety and comfort under disappointment.
His home life has been called "perfectly happy", and when he died, at the advanced age of eighty-eight at Hawarden, it appeared to many that "the light seemed to have died out of the sky". Even a foreigner echoed the feelings of many Englishmen when he said, "On the day that Gladstone died the world lost its greatest citizen".